Words by Christian Mott
Garrett Smith has a red beard. It’s with this beard that he worked at Denali National Park in Alaska, backpacked through Australia and New Zealand, went diving off the Great Barrier Reef, and hiked the Appalachian Trail. It’s with this beard that Garrett went to a birthday party on top of a mountain, met his future wife, and opened a store in Mobile that caters to humanity’s natural passion for the great outdoors. But opening Red Beard’s Outfitter is only the most recent event in this love story. The beginning goes back much farther, all the way back to Garrett’s childhood in the days before he could grow a beard that burns red.
rowing up, his parents took them on summer vacations to North Carolina to camp and whitewater raft. The water, that ever-enticing symbol of all things natural and wild, set the stage for his future. They went every summer. “That’s where I started getting into it.”
One year, at about nine years old, they were hiking on the Appalachian Trail (AT) at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. They met a man with a huge pack who was trying to walk to Maine, and it blew Garrett’s mind. “I didn’t even know that was possible!”
That’s when Garrett decided to give hiking a shot.
After high school, he left for Tuscaloosa to go to school, and a few of his friends decided to hike the AT after graduation. Garrett eventually dropped out and started working at FedEx, hammering nails and loading packages. One of those friends got a job with Georgia Power, which he couldn’t turn down. The other met a girl in Colorado at a summer gig, and he moved out there. So Garrett, as it turned out, decided to hike the AT by himself. He made it all the way to Pennsylvania by the time he found out his grandad had brain cancer. He left off there, and came home to spend the last two months with him. “Because trails are always there. Family is not.”
hat particular life event helped Garrett set up a rule for himself, a sort of system he could operate within: hike until it’s not fun anymore, and go home; but when the call of the wild beckons again, get back to it. Because even then, he hadn’t quite gotten it out of his system. It’s a good thing too—otherwise, he might not have met his future wife.
After his grandad passed, Garrett enrolled in school at USA in Mobile and graduated. In his words, he walked across the stage, got his diploma, and drove to Alaska with a buddy from Coleman. They worked for a hotel at Denali as bellboys “carrying bags for old people.” They hiked on the weekends or went fishing, saved as much money as they could. When that was done, they went backpacking through Australia and New Zealand for a month and a half, enjoying the landscapes and diving escapades off the Reef.
Back home, Garrett had a friend on the AT who had been working out in Vermont for the Green Mountain Trail. He met this guy up there, because they hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years. Garrett hiked the long trail in Vermont, which runs about 300 miles from Massachusetts to Canada. While there, his friend was going to a birthday party for a girl named Natalie. “I wasn’t really planning on going, but he said, ‘There’s this girl from Ocean Springs, Mississippi. You gotta come meet her. She’s really cool. I call her Natty Ice.”
They loaded up in his car and drove up Mount Mansfield to a stone hut that had no electricity—everything was done by candlelight once it got dark. “We all hung out up there, and that’s where I met my wife. It was her birthday. It was her, and a bunch of her friends. They were sittingaround this big, wooden dinner table in this stone hut that was built, I think, by the CCC.” (Which is either pretty ironic or incredibly fitting.)
Natalie and her friends had been up in Vermont protecting fragile alpine vegetation. In other words, keeping people from walking on it by building and maintaining trails and shelters. “She was in candlelight. It was different, it was magical. She was beautiful . . . She had a mullet for a haircut, a pretty good Kentucky Waterfall . . .”
Story is, a passerby on the trail told Natalie she had a “vision” for her hair. They had no mirrors, but Natalie, who wears a perpetual smile (at least every time I’ve seen her) was up for anything. “So they busted out a Leatherman tool and cut her a mullet.” And many would agree, that’s as close to true love as it gets.
Natalie moved home after she finished the job in Vermont, and she and Garrett began dating. After a few years, they had a sunset wedding in Gautier, Mississippi on the banks of Singing River (which is once again either ironic or fitting due to its romantic, yet tragic legend). “She loves pelicans, and there were a ton of pelicans out on the rocks.”
Garrett’s first retail job was Spoke ‘N Trail, which allowed him to go to school and travel. That’s where he learned a lot about outdoor gear and accessories. He was soon offered a managing position at Alabama Outdoors, which was another opportunity to learn, but when he knew he was getting married, he got a job with Wilson Dismukes. After Spoke ‘N Trail closed in December 2015, a friend of his approached him about opening an outdoor store. It seemed impossible to Garrett, unaffordable, but by February they had signed the lease and Red Beard’s Outfitter became a reality.
They opened on the first day of October 2016 to sell jackets, yoga clothing, hiking and camping gear, as well as skiing and trail running items. He has a mind to bring in boats, which gets him talking about the Alabama Delta, taking paddling trips to see the Indian Mounds, Jug Lake, and a champion cypress tree. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. Going out there is about as remote as you can get in the Lower 48 without going to some massive national park.”
On topic, Garrett said the Alabama Hiking Trail Society is trying to build a trail that runs the length of the state from Fort Morgan to the Tennessee line. They’re slowly piecing things together, building trails and such. He joked that it would be a good trail for beginners to learn what it’s like to sleep outside. “I like seeing people get into traveling and being outside, because you learn so much about yourself.”
While he’d love to open more Red Beard’s in other cities, his main goal is making this first location successful and getting it to stand on its own—and the main way he does that is by focusing on his employees, who are mostly college students.
“I do a couple things that are different from what you normally see down here.”
Garrett pays up to $100 in race entry fees or charity walks for his employees. “It keeps them active and allows them to be a part of the community. As a college student you don’t always have an extra twenty-five or fifty bucks to run a race.” He also pays a partial tuition-reimbursement bonus every six-month-period as long as the employee remains enrolled and maintains a B average.
But it doesn’t have to be school, he says—it could be any sort of class, yoga, dance, foreign language, whatever. As long as the employee is attending and passing, they’ll get a 50 cent raise every six months.
ut neither of those aspects are the most remarkable benefit Garrett offers. Because half of them are from out of town, he will pay his employees for up to twenty volunteer hours at any charity of their own choice—aside from some sort of Neo-Nazi organization, he joked—at the same hourly wage as if they worked as extra twenty in the store. He remembers being in college and wanting to go volunteer, but being unable to afford missing a shift at work. “Mobile is their community and I want to introduce them to it . . . It helps them give back, and to meet a bunch of cool people. I think it’s important to volunteer when you can.”
If a customer brings in a lightly-used jacket, Garrett will not only give them 15 percent off a new one, but will also donate the used one to the Penelope House. They also sell Light of the Village candles, and a bunch of different works of art by local makers.
“We want to be known as a place that genuinely cares . . . Being nice, friendly, and saying hello to the people who come in the store. The adventures they’re either getting ready to go on, or just coming back from, I want to hear those stories.”
Garrett’s ardor for open-air may have begun when was a boy, but now he has a red beard. His story is one of passion for the outdoors and the people who surround him. The world and its experiences have shaped him into the man he’s become, and now he is setting out to be an example and an influence for others—to be the man who walks to Maine, in his own way. Red Beard’s is a story of love of a wilder sort, one that we should always keep in our own mental cache—for the ones we know and adore, our friends, grandparents, spouses and peers, are too important not to cherish.
For the trails, as Garrett says, will always be there.